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Potsdam Town Court’s responsibility to the public

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It seems some of our justice courts do not understand their responsibility under the law to provide public access to documents and why public access is important.

The law makes absolutely no distinction between the media’s access to documents and everybody else’s. We are members of the public just like you. The public documents we get to see are the same that everybody is entitled to see under the law.

And the law says that unless there is a specific document that is barred from public viewing in another part of the law — like documents containing Social Security numbers or a case file of a minor accused of a crime — court documents shall be made available for public inspection at reasonable times.

That means that if you or me or anyone shows up at a justice court during its operating hours and says they want to look at a particular adult’s active criminal case file, the court’s only appropriate response under the law is, “Sure. Here you go.”

That was not Potsdam Town Court’s response, which told us last week that in order to see a file from a recent arraignment, we needed to submit a request in writing on company letterhead and then have the reporter requesting the documents submit photo identification that the court would photocopy for its records.

Let me be clear here. The court wasn’t saying we couldn’t see the documents, but the hoops it wanted us to jump through - which we were told are the same hoops everybody has to jump through - set up a scenario where court officials decide what a person can and cannot see based on who they are.

There is no reason to request the identity of a person asking to see a document. Everybody who requests to see a document the law says they are entitled to see is named John Q. Public.

Courts are not required for any purpose to keep a log of who requests documents. The only reason would be to decide, as Judge Sam Charleson put to me last week when I asked him the rationale for showing ID, “whether it’s appropriate for somebody to see the documents.”

Whether a document is appropriate for public viewing is not subject to selectivity. It is subject to the Unified Justice Court Act, which does not say that particular persons should be screened for appropriateness before they get a look at a case file.

After my conversation with Judge Charleson, I contacted the state Office of Court Administration in New York. The deputy director for media relations, Arlene Hackel, told me she would get to the bottom of the matter and get back to me. When I called her the next day, she said she had been told that the court placed its restrictions on us because we had requested “a lot of documents.”

What we got from the court between my two conversations with OCA totaled a whopping eight pages.

While I waited for OCA’s findings, we had already spent three days haggling with the court over the appropriateness of its protocols and weren’t getting far in educating its officials. We still had a job to do, so our reporter went to the court in person to ask to view a case file.

He was not asked to show ID, thankfully, despite us being told previously he would be. The judge present at the time, Judge James Mason, said he wanted to get a look at the file before our reporter got a chance to see it so he could determine whether the documents were appropriate for public disclosure.

He took the file into an adjoining room and said loudly enough for our reporter to hear that he wasn’t going to give us anything bearing a witness name. A closed-door conversation with the court clerk ensued.

When he returned, our reporter asked him what documents we weren’t getting. The reporter was told we weren’t getting some notes. When he asked the judge the same question later after a court proceeding, the response was that we weren’t getting sealed documents, the nature of which he did not specify.

There are two big problems with our interaction with the court.

First: the person accused of a crime, their family, friends, neighbors and the rest of the community, has an interest in knowing who is accusing them of that crime. The only exception we make is for victims of sexual assault, where the benefit of victim anonymity far outweighs the public benefit of revealing an accuser’s identity.

Second: We don’t know that what we were given was everything we were entitled to see under the law, because we weren’t told what specific types of documents were being withheld, and were given two different characterizations for the documents we weren’t allowed to see. This automatically leads us to suspect that because we are a media organization, the judge could have chosen to withhold documents that should have been public.

It makes me wonder how the court is treating the rest of the public. Are the family, friends and associates of someone accused of crimes not getting the whole story based on who they are? What about the friends, family and associates of victims? What about a neighbor of a person accused of a crime who wants to know what kind of threat to their personal safety and well-being could be living nearby?

We are in the process of educating ourselves about what all of the public’s rights are when it comes to access to court proceedings, including recourse if we think somebody is not following the law, and will share that information with Potsdam Town Court. My sincere hope is that the Potsdam court’s actions do not cast in a bad light the vast majority of St. Lawrence County’s municipal courts, who understand their responsibility to the public and uphold the law as they should.

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